The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about a young man named Liam McCoy. Liam was born with albinism, a diagnosis characterized by lack of the pigment melanin in his hair, eyes and skin. His eyes were overly sensitive to bright light, and he was extremely nearsighted. His eyes moved involuntarily to the point that he was unable to make them look at any specific object. He could only see something in a field three inches from his nose and had a visual acuity of 20/2000. Though he had sight, his visual perception was extremely poor. He learned to experience and understand his environment using cues that were different from those born with clear vision.
At the age of 15, Liam began a series of surgeries to correct his vision. It took time, but the procedures were successful in improving his visual acuity to 20/50. His involuntary eye movement greatly decreased. At this point, you might think that it’s cause for celebration. He can “see” like the rest of us.
But Liam now saw a jumble of colors, lines and edges without the context of how they belonged together. He was overwhelmed by optic stimuli and unable to process it all at once. His neurons didn’t have the benefit of those early years of training and processing information from his eyes. He didn’t have any concept of facial recognition and the meaning behind different expressions like “surprised” or “skeptical”. Others receive visual cues that translate into interpreting emotions, danger, nature, tasks to complete and the desire to purchase a product. For Liam, these were not in place.
Liam’s sight improved, but he continued for years to work on his vision. He needed the ability to make sense of and mentally process what he sees. After learning about his journey, I was admittedly struck by my lack of understanding of the difference between sight and vision.
We see the same, but our vision is different
Those of us born with clear vision learn to process the information from our eyes based on prior experience, past associations, needs, desires and attention levels. From birth, we increasingly make sense of the many things we see and encounter. I naively thought that when a visually impaired person gained sight, that they could quickly process what they were seeing. Like, “oh, that’s what a tree looks like!”
It made me think about the differences between sight and vision in other areas of our life experiences. If sight is the ability to see, and vision is how we process what we see, how many times have we had sight but lacked sufficient vision? How does our vision differ from others?
Here are some examples
- A visitor can walk through a manufacturing plant and see people working attentively at various stations, but the plant manager’s vision tells him how productive they are.
- People may see the same facts on topics like climate control or the economy, but their vision may lead them to different conclusions based on their individual experiences, preferences and areas of expertise.
- A leader may see her team member and thank him for his work but may not have vision to understand her team member is disengaged.
- Team members may see interactions with an employee of a different ethnicity, gender, sexual identity or physical capability as normal, but may lack vision to understand that the employee is being treated in a biased or prejudiced way.
We all may see the same things, but when our visual acuity or perception is different, we may process what we see differently. This leads to different conclusions. We are products and victims of our past experiences, and we rely on our innate and adaptive systems.
From a leadership perspective, this points to two interesting questions.
- How can leaders ensure organizations and teams become aligned in their vision?
- When does it benefit organizations and teams to have members with different visions?
The parable of the three blind men touching an elephant is helpful in this regard. One touched the tail and thought it was like a snake. Another touched the elephant’s side and thought it was like a wall. And the third touched the elephant’s leg and thought it was like a tree trunk. Unless they come together and verbally talk about what they are seeing and “connect the dots” between their experiences, they will never recognize the underlying reasons for their differences and understand their value.
When leaders work through an organizational strategy, they may be exposed to the same information but bring different perspectives to the discussion. The opportunity to debate and analyze it with respect for each person’s vision will help to clarify the steps needed to proceed. In this way, collective vision becomes important to aggregate multiple viewpoints into a unified strategy. That’s why leaders need to surround themselves with people who have different visual acuity to shed light on critical topics. Gathering input from their team members ensures clarity and alignment.
The goal is for leaders to improve the collective vision of their teams, recognizing the value of diverse perspectives. Just like Liam, this is an active process of understanding and evaluating sight and applying this vision to future decisions. We can’t take sight or vision for granted.